Transformative Leader and Mentor

Dusty Alahakoon – Managing Director at Heineken Lanka, Chairman at NEXT Campus and the Director at Pepper Cube Consulting 

A product of Trinity College Kandy, Dusty Alahakoon’s professional journey began right after school at the age of 19, when he took up a Medical Representative role at a pharmaceutical company, where he was promoted as a Manager at a very young age. Concurrently with embarking on his career, Dusty also pursued his studies in Marketing, knowing that experience and education go hand in hand in achieving success in one’s chosen path. With the ambition of gaining experience in as many industries as possible, Dusty moved to United Tractors where he spent three years mainly doing marketing services and business planning. These formative years gave Dusty a firm grounding in marketing and made him realize his real passion and inherent talent for it.  

“Having started my MBA, I moved to FMCG, because I realized that I liked FMCG more than industrial marketing. I spent a very short time at Delmege as a Marketing Manager. My career really got a boost when I joined Ceylon Tobacco Company as a Research Manager. I was with Ceylon Tobacco for six years. From research, I moved to brand management, and then became Head of Brands at Ceylon Tobacco. Ceylon Tobacco is an excellent company; it is like a university in the way they invest in people and capability development. But, the downside for me was that it was a monopoly, because the kind of learning that you can get from a competitive angle is limited. This caused a restlessness in me to explore a more challenging role in a competitive environment. I took up an opportunity to join Coca Cola Beverages Sri Lanka Ltd during a very difficult time for the company, which was struggling with a low market share. I joined as Head of Marketing, and I spent four and a half years at Coca Cola. It was an exciting time during which we transformed the company and its culture, and did a lot of work in terms of promoting the brand. This is where I found my thirst for challenges and transformation, and my drive towards creating real tangible change, and transforming people and brands. I have never looked back since then.” 

Commenting on his current role, Dusty said, “Thereafter, I got an opportunity to join Heineken, which at that time was called Asia Pacific Brewery, as Managing Director – a post I have held for the past ten years. My journey at Heineken has been the greatest challenge and the best gift that I have received in my life. Throughout the past ten years, we have transformed the entire company from being a small local entity to a true multinational organization, investing in our supply chain, people and our brands, and making it an aspirational brand and company in Sri Lanka. Heineken is known in Sri Lanka for its youthful, vibrant and global outlook, and a company that makes you ‘Go-Places’ in your career.” 

Dusty has another facet to his life, which is his passion for teaching and mentoring. Dusty explained, “In the 99-2000 period, I wanted to give lecturing a try. I was a very bad public speaker. I had many inhibitions. So, I thought of developing myself in that area and I felt that the best way to do it was to lecture. I began lecturing for marketing and a few other subjects. I did such a bad job at my first lecture that half of the class walked out after the break! It was a real eye opener for me, but I refused to give up. I prepared myself, worked at it and became really good at it. I started to like lecturing and connecting with students. Today, I have been lecturing for over 20 years. In 2007, I moved into lecturing at the Post Graduate Level and established NEXT Campus with a group of friends, and I’m the Chairman today. I really enjoy lecturing subjects like Strategy, Research and Leadership. These topics are very close to my heart and the passion flows when I stand in front of a class of students. It’s all about how we can change peoples’ lives. How we can train them to become better thinkers and leaders, and bring the best out of them.  At most times, I work all seven days, and I don’t mind giving up my weekends to ensure that I contribute towards forming the next generation of thinkers and business leaders in the country. I feel there is a responsibility among all of us to ‘give back’ or ‘pay it forward’ and contribute to society.” 

He went on to say that “Today, the norm is multiple master’s degrees and development programs where we need to up-skill and re-skill ourselves every now and then, to be ahead of the curve in this digital decade. At NEXT Campus, our primary objective has been to be a differentiator in master’s education offering our students the opportunity to keep abreast with the changing times. I feel that our choice to be that differentiator has changed the landscape of the education industry in Sri Lanka.” 

When asked about how to be relevant in ever-changing times and plans, Dusty said, “I am a firm believer in continuous learning and in 2017, I decided that I needed to reskill and upskill myself. So, I registered myself for another Master’s Degree program in Coaching & Consulting for Change, at INSEAD in Singapore. It was a huge investment in terms of time and money. But I was happy to do so as it was at INSEAD, which is the highest ranked business school in the world.  I travelled to the Singapore campus every two months within a span of two years to participate in the program. I’m proud to have been the first Sri Lankan to be admitted to the program and obtain the qualification. My experience at INSEAD was something that I had not experienced before, after many years I was a student, and was privileged to have learnt and exchanged ideas with my professors and classmates who were thought leaders in the areas of leadership, change and coaching. My passion is to get into the coaching of CEOs and consulting to management teams on how strategy, mindsets and change can be managed in the future. I feel that Sri Lanka, as a middle-income developing country, has huge potential to grow and be a formidable force in the region. What is needed is good leadership and strategy amongst our business leaders and the agility to embrace change.”

Questioned specifically about the common principles of a successful strategic plan, Dusty responded, “I would like to approach this question from a more unique perspective in today’s context. I see it in two parts, which are interconnected to each other. The first, I would say is the strategy that we have, which forms a bigger part of the plan. I think many companies get the strategy part right, but they need to really look at what position they want to occupy and what type of place they want to be in mid to long term. If you can flesh it out so that the team and the entire company understands this strategy, then I would say it is a winning one, which delivers your greater ambition. The bigger problem is, strategy never comes ‘off the paper’ and translates into action, which leads to my second point. This is because the team does not believe in it and are not in the same frequency as the ones who created it! This is about mindsets. To some extent, we talk about culture in companies, but today mindsets are more important when it comes to implementing and executing a strategy. A company culture is merely a byproduct or manifestation of the mindsets within. Depending on the strategy and the context, you need to identify the type of mindsets the company needs to inculcate and display to execute the strategy, and to go out into the market and fight. In most cases, I see that the connection between these two parts is lost and most often we don’t find these mindsets coming out strong in a company with a supportive culture. This sabotages or delays the achievement of the plan.” 

Commenting on why mindsets are equally important for strategy execution, Dusty said “To start with, there are different mindsets among leaders and employees. In my opinion, a set of successful mindsets should be built on the concept of agility, which requires us to be agile when it comes to people, change, results, mental behaviors and self-awareness. This has been widely recognized as ‘the organizational X factor’ or as ‘learning agility’ by Korn Ferry consultants. As a person who is passionate about transforming brands, organizations and people, I feel that this agility is the decisive point that makes or breaks a company. Time to time, the mindsets needed to complement strategy should change, which means we need to let go and not stubbornly hold onto yesterday’s truth. We at Heineken believe that what was good yesterday is ok today and not good enough for tomorrow.” 

Speaking particularly on self-awareness, “This is the most difficult part for today’s leaders, to be able to see themselves from a distance and within and understand that there are blind spots, deep seated values and also unknown biases that drive our actions. This requires constant self-reflection and getting to know others at an authentic level. The deeper and authentic our connections are, the easier it is for us to have difficult and challenging conversations. This also helps us to embrace a common mindset which is needed to execute strategy,” Dusty added.   

Commenting on the impact of COVID-19 in the FMCG industry, Dusty said, “I would say that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone, not only Heineken, but most companies across the world. Lifestyle products like beer, where people go out and enjoy, which we call ‘out of home consumption’ is heavily impacted. At the same time, people are at home and they consume more beverages and food. So, the demand has moved from ‘out of home’ to ‘in home’ consumption suddenly and parts of it could remain that way. And of course, there is an impact on disposable income, and that will have a cascading effect on FMCG products. In some cases, the trends that we would have seen five years away have become true today, triggering a digital transformation. But the idea is, how do you shape your strategy to live with this new balance? How will you come out with new offers and new ways of addressing these altered consumer needs? The buying patterns have especially changed, and companies need to address these new ways of purchasing and align their selling approach accordingly.” 

“To sum up, I think winning in the business world is all about agility and resilience. Because one thing is certain; be it the marketplace, consumer demands, socio-political ethos of the country, everything is dynamic and changing. We are talking about the ‘new norm’ in the post COVID era. This phrase has become almost a cliché. In a competitive environment, every day presents a new norm for us. What is required of a business leader is a good vision, a strategy embedded in insights and a great mindset grounded on agility and resilience, in simple words, being relevant tomorrow!”